Last week, I hosted a two-day workshop on reimagining democracy.

The idea was to bring together people from a variety of disciplines who are all thinking about different aspects of democracy, less from a “what we need to do today” perspective and more from a blue-sky future perspective. My remit to the participants was this:

The idea is to start from scratch, to pretend we’re forming a new country and don’t have any precedent to deal with. And that we don’t have any unique interests to perturb our thinking. The modern representative democracy was the best form of government mid-eighteenth century politicians technology could invent. The twenty-first century is a very different place technically, scientifically, and philosophically. What could democracy look like if it were reinvented today? Would it even be democracy­—what comes after democracy?

Some questions to think about:

  • Representative democracies were built under the assumption that travel and communications were difficult. Does it still make sense to organize our representative units by geography? Or to send representatives far away to create laws in our name? Is there a better way for people to choose collective representatives?
  • Indeed, the very idea of representative government is due to technological limitations. If an AI system could find the optimal solution for balancing every voter’s preferences, would it still make sense to have representatives­—or should we vote for ideas and goals instead?
  • With today’s technology, we can vote anywhere and any time. How should we organize the temporal pattern of voting—­and of other forms of participation?
  • Starting from scratch, what is today’s ideal government structure? Does it make sense to have a singular leader “in charge” of everything? How should we constrain power­—is there something better than the legislative/judicial/executive set of checks and balances?
  • The size of contemporary political units ranges from a few people in a room to vast nation-states and alliances. Within one country, what might the smaller units be­—and how do they relate to one another?
  • Who has a voice in the government? What does “citizen” mean? What about children? Animals? Future people (and animals)? Corporations? The land?
  • And much more: What about the justice system? Is the twelfth-century jury form still relevant? How do we define fairness? Limit financial and military power? Keep our system robust to psychological manipulation?

My perspective, of course, is security. I want to create a system that is resilient against hacking: one that can evolve as both technologies and threats evolve.

The format was one that I have used before. Forty-eight people meet over two days. There are four ninety-minute panels per day, with six people on each. Everyone speaks for ten minutes, and the rest of the time is devoted to questions and comments. Ten minutes means that no one gets bogged down in jargon or details. Long breaks between sessions and evening dinners allow people to talk more informally. The result is a very dense, idea-rich environment that I find extremely valuable.

It was amazing event. Everyone participated. Everyone was interesting. (Details of the event—emerging themes, notes from the speakers—are in the comments.) It’s a week later and I am still buzzing with ideas. I hope this is only the first of an ongoing series of similar workshops.